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Mysterious Origin of the Great Chicago Fire

Mrs. O’Leary’s cow is said to have started the fire when it kicked over a lantern.

The origin of the Great Chicago is a mystery. Legend has it that a cow belonging to a Mrs. Catherine O’Leary accidentally kicked over a lighted lantern. The lantern, in turn, set the surrounding barn on fire, starting the great blaze. Even today when Americans refer to a great disaster that was started by a trivial action, they sometimes refer to “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.”

By most accounts, the fire did start in the area of Mrs. O’Leary’s farm (137 DeKoven Street in southwest Chicago)on October 8, 1871. However, there is some doubt as to the true origin of the fire. The fire may have been started by humans or even a meteor that crashed to Earth in the area.

However, one thing remains certain: the Great Chicago Fire left devastation in its wake.

The Great Chicago Fire Spreads Destruction

Once it spread beyond its starting point near the O’Leary’s farm, the fire made its way north and east to the city of Chicago itself. In 1871, Chicago was comprised of mostly wooden buildings; to make matters worse, the summer and fall of that year had been unseasonably dry.  Both of these conditions combined to make the city of Chicago little more than kindling for the fire. The fire, which had started on October 8th, burned wildly until October 10th, when rain helped bring the blaze under control of the firefighters.

All told, the fire had devastated an area that stretched for four miles long and almost a mile wide; this area included the city’s business district. Over 300 people were killed in the fire, while around 100,000 people were left homeless. The fire destroyed more than 17,000 structures and caused $200 million in damage. Even after firefighters got the blaze under control, there was looting and lawlessness throughout the city. Companies of U.S. soldiers were sent to the city, and martial law was declared on October 11th. This martial law was not lifted until several weeks later.

The Aftermath of the Fire: A City Rebuilds

Although the Great Chicago Fire burned down many of the city’s buildings, much of the city’s physical structure was left intact, including the city’s transportation system. Since the transportation system was still intact, this made it easier for the city to rebuild. The architects and engineers who designed the rebuild of Chicago laid the framework for a newer, more modern city to take the place of the old Chicago. These plans included the world’s first skyscrapers. Construction began in earnest right after the fire when the population was roughly 324,000. Nine years later in 1880, Chicago’s population had grown to half a million people. By 1890, Chicago had grown to a million people, making it the second largest city (New York being the largest) in the United States.

Great Chicago Fire Fun Facts

  • On the same day that the Chicago Fire started, a fire in Peshtigo Wisconsin also started. That fire killed more than 1,000 people
  • In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution that exonerated Catherine O’Leary and her cow. Exonerated means they no longer blamed them.
  • Today, the Chicago Fire Department’s Training Academy stands at the site of the O’Leary property.
  • Catherine O’Leary’s son James “Big Jim” O’Leary was a major figure in gambling in Chicago’s South Side. He helped pave the way for famous gangster Al Capone.